JASTA Passes: Here Are the Implications

© Jim Bourg / Reuters. U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015.
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For once, a bipartisan agreement in Congress actually produced a good outcome.

Last week, President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would allow the 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government for its apparent involvement. Many leaders in Congress claimed they had the votes needed to overcome the veto (2/3 in both houses), but it almost seemed too good to be true.

On Wednesday, the votes finally occurred and it wasn’t even a contest. The Senate overrode Obama’s veto 97-1, and the House overrode the veto at 348-77. JASTA will become law, and the principle of sovereign immunity now has an exception for terrorism. Congress doesn’t deserve praise often, but this is one of those days.

JASTA is likely to have several important effects. Here’s a brief rundown:

A Chance for Justice

As a simple matter of justice, JASTA is a very positive development. Until now, there’s been a lot of violent retribution in response to the 9/11 attacks, but the vast majority of it was directed at unsavory people and governments that had little or no connection to the attacks themselves. Thus, real justice has remained elusive.

In the name of 9/11, the US first invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government. This occurred in spite of the fact that the Taliban is not the same thing as Al Qaeda and actually offered to extradite Osama bin Laden for prosecution, under fairly reasonable conditions. The US opted not to pursue diplomacy, however, and threw the country of Afghanistan into chaos that still persists to this day. The Iraq invasion was also partly justified on Iraq’s alleged involvement in 9/11–even though Saddam Hussein’s government was actually a bitter enemy of Al Qaeda and like-minded groups. This too created a situation of unimaginable suffering for the Iraqi people that also persists to the present.

Thus, it’s been darkly ironic that Saudi Arabia, the country that appears to have the most substantial links to the 9/11 attacks, suffered no consequences whatsoever in the aftermath of 9/11. Their alliance with America was preserved intact as America threatened or bombed many of its neighbors. The US government eventually got around to finding and executing Osama bin Laden in 2011–nine years after he might have been captured if the US had accepted the Taliban’s offer. Given this history, it’s fair to say justice hasn’t been fully served in the case of 9/11, and Congress’s action this week will do something to rectify this situation.

New Evidence Could Jeopardize the Saudi Alliance

The discovery procedure involved in the 9/11 lawsuits may reveal new information that has previously been withheld. If this information further confirms suspicions of Saudi complicity in the attacks, it may have negative implications for the US-Saudi alliance. And given that the Saudi government is currently engaged in an aggressive war against neighboring Yemen, with US support, an end to the alliance would be a positive development for peace.

Economic Uncertainty for US and Saudi

Naturally, the Saudi government has opposed any measures that aim to shine a brighter light on Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. One tactic used by the Saudis was a threat to sell off billions in US government debt.

It’s not clear exactly how much US government debt the Saudi government and its officials actually own. It’s also unclear whether the Saudi government will follow through on this threat now that their nightmare has become a reality. But it is a real risk nevertheless.

Assuming they do decide to sell all of their portfolio, the repercussions in the US economy could be considerable. A large sell-off of US debt would put upward pressure on interest rates that are currently near all-time lows. If the shock is significant enough, it could spark a larger panic in the financial markets.

Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, liquidating their US assets is a double-edged sword. For their threat to be meaningful, they’d have to be willing to try to cause an outright recession. But if such a recession really did occur, the Saudis would suffer as well, because oil prices would likely fall further in the event of a recession.

It remains to be seen what the Saudis will ultimately decide. In the meantime, JASTA just gave the global economy, one more source of uncertainty.

Accountability for US Crimes?

One of the most popular arguments against passing JASTA was that it would subject US personnel to lawsuits as well. However, this argument conveniently omits the fact that the bill only lifts sovereign immunity in the case of terrorism. Should US personnel and the US government really be immune to any legal sanctions if they are committing acts of terrorism? What reasonable person could possibly justify this?

Of course, it seems virtually certain that some parts of the US government have participated in activities consistent with terrorism. This explains the opposition to the law.

Having said that, the official concern that US personnel would be subject to the rulings of foreign courts should be treated with skepticism. The US violates international law and other countries’ wishes on a regular basis, without consequences. The US government has also proved eager to apply double standards internationally whenever it proves convenient. It’s difficult to imagine any of these trends would change just because Congress passed a law.

In fact, the day after the veto was defeated, many lawmakers were already talking up the possibility that the legislation could be modified to further protect US personnel from any legal ramifications. If such a modification is passed, it should be viewed as a formality. The probability that the US government would honor the rulings of a foreign court was basically zero. The most likely modification of JASTA will amount to a novel legal rationale to justify the double standard.  But the double standard will exist either way.

Summary

The passage of JASTA over President Obama’s veto may be the most promising foreign policy development this year. It marks the continuing deterioration of the US-Saudi alliance and the decline of Saudi power in the region.

For supporters of peace and nonintervention, this is all to the good.

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